Plantain is the first item on almost every menu of restaurants we visited in Cuba (Havana, Trinidad de Cuba, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, Cayo Santa Maria) – fried crispy thin, or chewy-soft filled with tuna, ham, minced meat or cheese, or boiled in syrup.
It is less sugary and more starchy than its relative, the banana.
Black beans are another staple, best eaten with rice or in a soup or stew. Yam fritters are also delicious, especially when dipped in syrup or honey, Cuba being a sugar cane-growing country.
Another tasty appetiser is aubergine slices grilled with cheese, also sometimes served with a little pot of syrup for dipping.
Cuban rice, surprisingly, is often salted, even when served plain. Chicken done in different ways with an accompaniment of rice and vegetables is the standard main meal (at least for tourists): arroz con pollo.
For something different, ropa vieja, soft shreded beef slow-cooked with cumin, tomato and vegetables, is a must-try. It is nicknamed Old Clothes because it looks like rags bunched together. Luckily it tastes far better than it looks.
Ceviche is very well made, both in Havana and at our beach resort, Cayo Santa Maria. The tanginess and saltiness of it make it a lip-smacking appetite launcher.
For pork eaters, there is smoked pork fillets and crispy fried skin or pork belly, and whole pig roasted till the skin is crispy. The sliced meat is served with spicy mojo sauce.
Once, my other half and I made the mistake of eating lunch in a cheap restaurant. He ordered spaghetti (1.50 CUC or RM6) and I, pizza (same price). His came with tasteless tomato sauce and a mound of shredded insipid cheese on top. Mine had a soft, thick bread base, but at least with tasty salami.
Set breakfast at inns and hotels usually consists of a platter of slices of papaya, guava, pineapple, watermelon and sometimes orange; fried eggs or omelette with ham and cheese, or not-too-exciting little Cuban pastries. Cuban bread and butter are nothing to write home about. Their cheese is sometimes palatable.
(It is reported that Cubans, although sometimes undernourished, are getting heavier with cases of diabetes on the rise.)
Cuban flan is the standard dessert in almost every restaurant. It differs from the French flan in that it contains whole eggs and two kinds of milk, including sweetened condensed milk. Baked with caramelised sugar, it is an irresistible finisher. I have since been inspired to slow-bake my own Cuban flan.
The other regional cake to indulge in is the tres leches cake, which is a milky sponge cake poked with holes and drizzled with a condensed milk mixture, sweetened as well as unsweetened, and topped with whipped cream.
Dinner for two usually costs 30 to 40 CUC (RM120 to RM160).
Every cup of coffee (1 to 2 CUC, or RM4 to RM8, depending where and what kind) is accompanied by a little stick of sugar cane for stirring and chewing on, if you wish. Cafe con leche is milky coffee and cafe cortado is coffee or espresso with less milk. There is also cafe tres leches in fancier cafes.
My personal favourite was cafe frio con leche sin azucar – cold milky coffee without sugar.
If you like rum, try all the kinds available to see which your favourite is, so you can take home a bottle. Smooth and flavourful or not too smooth – it’s up to your tastebuds.
Tourists who opt for a stay in an all-inclusive beach resort (unlimited food and drinks) will, apart from Cuban and Creole food, no doubt try as many cocktails as they like, including but not limited to daiquiri, mojito, pina colada and margarita. My other half says Cuban beer is good; percentage of alcohol varies.
Recommended restaurants: La Cocina de Esteban in Havana, Hostal Florida restaurant in Santa Clara, Sol y Son in Trinidad de Cuba.